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Month: March 2011

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)

“My Lisa is dead — the marks of a vampire on her throat!”

Synopsis:
A vampire (John Carradine) pretends to be the uncle of a beautiful young woman (Melinda Plowman) engaged to Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney).

Genres:

Review:
Shot in just eight days in Simi Valley — back-to-back with its “counterpart”, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) — this infamously awful hybrid horror-western by director William “One Shot” Beaudine is, like its companion piece, based upon a reasonably inspired revisionist concept: what if a famous western outlaw (like Billy the Kid or Jesse James) were brought back to life and given a chance to interact with a notorious horror icon such as Dracula or Dr. Frankenstein? Unfortunately, the concepts behind these two clunkers are the best things about them. In this case, Courtney makes for a disappointingly boring Billy the Kid (who has reformed from his murderous ways), and while Carradine is given a few pieces of choice dialogue to spout — “Where do I find this backwoods female pill slinger?” — he doesn’t quite ham it up enough to make his role all that memorable.

Meanwhile, everything else about the production is just sloppy enough to be mildly laughable (n.b. the presence of lackadaisical western music playing in the background while Billy tells Betty [Plowman] the shocking news that her mother has been killed in a stagecoach attack by Indians; the noticeably shoddy attempt to film night-time sequences during the day; Carradine’s transformation into a silly rubber bat on a string) — but not sloppy ENOUGH to categorize it as even close to Ed Wood’s “league” of truly bad films. It does earn additional “sloppy points”, however, for its egregiously lazy attempt to validate Dracula as a viable protagonist in the film: as pointed out by Richard Scheib of the SF, Fantasy, and Horror website, Dracula (who is never named as such in the film, btw — only in the title) is actually “of little consequence to the plot”, given that he could just have easily been conceived as “a conman attempting to steal the land”, and is noticeably “allowed to walk about in daylight”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Virginia Christine’s refreshingly sincere performance as an immigrant woman wary of Carradine from the start

Must See?
Yes, simply to have seen at least one of Beaudine’s infamously titled “bad movies” (though either would probably suffice). Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

“I do not trust the Frankensteins: they’re wicked; they’re terrible people. They will destroy you!”

Synopsis:
Although presumed dead, Jesse James (John Lupton) emerges alive and well in a border town with his buddy Hank (Cal Bolder), who gets shot during an attempted hold-up. With the help of Jesse’s new love interest, Juanita (Estelita Rodriguez), Hank is taken to the home of Dr. Maria Frankenstein (Narda Onyx), who dreams of transplanting her infamous grandfather’s brain into Hank’s body.

Genres:

Review:
As numerous critics have noted, this revisionist genre-hybrid by director William “One Shot” Beaudine — shot at the same time as its “companion piece”, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966) — is disappointing on all counts save one: Narda Onyx’s campy portrayal as the original Frankstein’s granddaughter (not daughter, as she’s mis-identified in the title). Whenever she’s on-screen, spouting her delusional dreams of mad doc grandeur, we’re mildly intrigued; whenever she’s not, we’re utterly bored. Lupton is okay but ultimately a tad too milquetoast as a Robin Hood-esque Jesse James (did he decide to sort of mend his ways after being falsely presumed dead?), and his “relationship” with hunk-o-beef Cal Bolder (what a name!) is simply begging for homoerotic analysis. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough laughably bad scenes or snippets of dialogue here to satisfy those who enjoy “bad movies” for exactly this reason; chances are you’ll be checking your watch long before it’s over. With that said, Z-grade reviewer Joe Bob Briggs’ commentary on the 2003 DVD release is apparently worth a listen (though I watched my copy taped off of TCM, so didn’t have a chance to catch this myself.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Onyx’s campily earnest portrayal as Maria Frankenstein

Must See?
No — though I’m pretty sure most film fanatics won’t be able to resist briefly checking out this infamously titled bad movie (nominated for a Golden Turkey award in the Medved brothers’ book as one of the worst-titled films in cinematic history). Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

“You’re not a senator: you’re an honorary stooge.”

Synopsis:
A naively idealistic new senator (James Stewart), aided by his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur), must confront an immensely corrupt political “machine” in Washington, run by Edward Arnold and fronted by two-faced Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this classic political soaper “Frank Capra at his corniest, hokiest, and most manipulative”, yet he goes on to argue that “Still, it’s a great film”, and places it a notch above Capra’s earlier take on the same general theme, 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (which was originally meant to be this film’s prequel). He notes that “like other Capra heroes, Stewart’s Smith” — a “great hero” — is the “American everyman, an idealist with a tendency toward demagoguery when he wants to right a wrong”, someone who “is on the brink of giving up and allowing the people he represents to be swallowed up by corrupt influences, when someone he has inspired reminds him of his importance and all the worthy things he stands for”. Mr. Smith… is beloved by many: it’s cited as one of the most inspirational political films of all time, and the justifiably praised extended filibuster sequence during the film’s final half-hour affords Stewart a chance to truly shine (he shows definite hints of his later, more fully developed characterization as George Bailey in Capra’s true masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life).

However, I’m not entirely a fan of this highly sincere yet ultimately slickly contrived political exposé. While I don’t doubt for an instant that Washington, D.C. really is as corrupt as Capra depicts it here (that’s pretty much undeniable at this point), I dislike the way Sidney Buchman’s screenplay presents Mr. Smith as the ultimate in gullible naifs, someone so incredibly clueless about politics that he needs to be told (by Jean Arthur, in a conveniently calculated scene) how bills are developed and passed in Congress. We’re meant to believe that Stewart’s idealistic leader of the “Boy Rangers” of America would accept a job as temporary senator of his state without even a minimal understanding of what his job entails, simply because he purportedly has idolized his father’s “best friend” (Rains) for years (this essential detail, by the way, is merely hinted at rather than sufficiently developed).

Indeed, unlike Cooper’s Mr. Deeds (who is almost immediately shown to be infinitely smarter than the arrogant fools around him make him out to be), Stewart’s Mr. Smith remains conveniently clueless — up until the moment he’s finally convinced he needs to take action, at which point his character suddenly springs to life, and one watches with impressed astonishment at Stewart’s full-bodied characterization of a man willing to take the Senate floor for 24 hours straight. Meanwhile, the outrageously corrupt political “machine” continues to churn around him, and Capra pulls out all the stops in his depiction of the “little men” (in this case, “little” Boy Rangers, of all ages and conveniently represented ethnicities) fighting to bring Truth and Freedom to Washington.

Despite my reservations, naturally, there remains much about the film to enjoy and admire — starting with Stewart’s showstopping performance in the final third of the film. Jean Arthur is as wonderful as ever in an even more cynical variation on her earlier role as the journalist in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; here, she’s notoriously tippled much of the time, and she’s not quite as much of a romantic partner for Smith (Peary argues that they make “a wonderful couple”, but they technically AREN’T one). Rains — who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor — oozes quiet corruption in his almost perfectly realized turn as Senator Paine, though I couldn’t help being irritated by his failure to lose his British accent for the role. Joseph Walker’s cinematography is typically atmospheric, and the recreated set of the Senate floor is quite impressive.

Ultimately, however, I’m too much of a cynic to fully appreciate the type of unabashed heart-thumper Capra is going for here. For a much more authentic and nuanced representation of the inner workings of Washington, D.C., watch Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962) instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Claude Rains as Senator Paine
  • The undeniably stirring filibuster sequence
  • Joseph Walker’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as one of Capra’s iconic classics. Nominated by Peary as one of the best films of the year — in a year notoriously filled with “classics” — in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940)

“Now, remember, Pinocchio: be a good boy — and always let your conscience be your guide.”

Synopsis:
A wooden puppet (Dickie Jones) hoping to become a real boy relies on the help of his “conscience”, Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), to prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Like most critics, Peary rightfully labels this early Disney classic (the studio’s second feature-length film after its 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) a “supreme” picture, arguing that it “has no flaws”, given that it’s “beautifully paced, funny, [and] has outstanding songs, marvelous characters, and the best animation in all of Disney”. He accurately notes that the “characters and sets are impressively and imaginatively drawn”, pointing out that one should watch (just for instance) “Pinocchio’s face change when he smokes a cigar”. Indeed, there are countless visual treats throughout the entire film, as demonstrated immediately during the marvelous opening scenes taking place in the woodcutter Gepetto’s house; I defy you not to chuckle with delight while watching the enchanting “dance of the cuckoo clocks”, displaying clocks with “a hunter shooting a bird, a woodsman chopping a turkey’s neck, a mother spanking the boy’s bottom, and two classical dancers”.

Pinocchio — like Snow White — is yet another astonishingly bold Disney adaptation of a “children’s tale” which is simply far too scary for the littlest of audience members. Peary drolly states that the “film has a lot of visuals that could scare a young child (but that’s okay)” — italics mine (!!). Countless fans have shared anecdotes about the most frightening scenes they recall from their own childhoods, with some citing the culminating sea-battle with Monstro the whale (“fabulously animated” with meticulous care; Peary refers to it as “absolutely terrifying”), and many others — including myself — noting that the most personally terrifying scenes were those in which the little boys at “Pleasure Island” are gradually turned into braying donkeys, to be sent off to work in the salt mines or at carnivals. Ouch. (And — minor spoiler alert — there’s no final resolution to this dilemma, by the way; as far as audience members know, the boys’ metamorphoses are permanent.)

Indeed, Pinocchio unapologetically presents the world as the big, bad place it often is, full of temptations and evil, in which it’s really each man — or child — for himself. Pinocchio’s father, while kind-hearted, is presented as utterly clueless, from the moment he sends his “newly born son” out into the world to go to school (why not walk him there on the first day, for goodness sake??? he’s the ultimate ANTI-helicopter-parent), to the final episode of the film, in which we see him mysteriously trapped in a whale, essentially in need of rescuing by Pinocchio himself, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, it’s a good thing Pinocchio has more reliable “adults” to count on — though both the Blue Fairy (animated via rotoscoping, she truly is “exceptional” looking) and Jiminy Cricket (ukelele-playing Cliff Edwards is “perfect” as his voice) are equally “hands off” at critical moments. Ultimately (spoilers here again), when Pinocchio is granted the wish he’s longed for during his entire short existence, he’s proven he truly deserves it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Masterful early animation
  • A strong sense of whimsical visual detail
  • A refreshingly no-holds-barred coming-of-age tale
  • Several memorable, Oscar-winning songs

Must See?
Of course. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

“People here are funny: they work so hard at living they forget how to live.”

Synopsis:
When an eccentric poet (Gary Cooper) inherits a large sum of money from his wealthy uncle, he suddenly finds himself the laughing stock of New York, thanks to a series of articles written by an undercover journalist (Jean Arthur).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary describes this (relatively) early Frank Capra film as the first in the director’s oeuvre “to really attack the city, to show that it has deprived its people of their basic human values”. He argues that it “never reflects the cynicism” of Capra’s later, similarly themed films — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, or It’s a Wonderful Life — and contends that “it is the only one of the four films where the happy ending seems completely natural.” Ultimately, though, while he finds Mr. Deeds… “enjoyable”, he argues that “it’s not on the level of the Jimmy Stewart films” — though he clearly finds it preferable to Cooper’s later collaborative effort with Capra, Meet John Doe (1941), which we both agree is a highly over-rated bore.

Indeed, having just recently rewatched MJD (also scripted by Capra’s frequent collaborator, Robert Riskin), I was pleasantly surprised to find this earlier comedy so much fresher on every count. Riskin’s script — while occasionally showing evidence of “Capra-corn”-ish tendencies — never strays too far in this direction, and offers plenty of humorous delights. Unlike in MJD, Cooper’s home-spun title character here possesses a refreshing amount of sass and eccentric gumption; while we may be tempted at first to laugh at him (along with the rest of New York), we very quickly realize he has his finger on the pulse of what’s truly important in life. Meanwhile, Jean Arthur’s performance as the opportunistic journalist who jumps at the chance to earn a month’s vacation (with pay) by scooping Longfellow’s story never hits a false note — we can literally see her falling for him moment by moment, and her gradual remorse at the critical role she’s playing in his humiliation is palpable. You’re guaranteed to choke up during their final romantic scene together.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Jean Arthur as Babe Bennett (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Joseph Walker’s cinematography
  • Robert Riskin’s humorous, incisive script

Must See?
Yes; this one represents Capra at his peak. Nominated by Peary (and the actual Academy) as one of the best pictures of the year.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe (1941)

“If you ask this column, the wrong people are jumping off the roofs.”

Synopsis:
When a “John Doe” letter concocted by a reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) hits a nerve with the public, her oily newspaper editor (Edward Arnold) decides to hire an out-of-work baseball player (Gary Cooper) to impersonate Doe, with the intention of building a mass political movement.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is pretty much accurate in his scathing review of this “self-congratulatory, pretentious, gloomy, [and] heartless” film, which remains one of Capra’s most iconic movies (and was “shamelessly calculated to become a commercial success”) but simply hasn’t held up well at all. Peary argues that it feels like it was “made by someone who always climbs out of the wrong side of the bed”, given that it “shows an America perpetuated solely by corrupt individuals and simpletons who’ll believe anything told to them and accept anything done to them”. He says he “can’t stand how Capra lines up his common folk, has them talk in humble, hushed tones, and shines a light on their well-scrubbed faces so that we may think they have angels sitting on their shoulders”. He specifically calls out the seemingly endless “discourse” narrated by a soda jerk (Regis Toomey) about “his town’s people coming together after being inspired by John Doe’s help-your-neighbor speech” (which never rings true, not for a minute), and notes that Cooper’s speeches “could have been delivered to a junior-high civics class” (I’ll admit to nearly falling asleep in the middle of the first interminable one).

Indeed, it’s actually difficult to argue that this film IS must-see, and I went back and forth in my vote — ultimately deciding that film fanatics will probably be too curious not to check it out at least once for themselves (I’ve now seen it twice, and that’s enough for me). With that said, I do find Barbara Stanwyck’s performance to be worth a watch — though her character, as written, is somewhat inconsistently motivated (it’s difficult to believe that the daughter of two such noble parents would be willing to perpetuate such an elaborate hoax on the public), this is no fault of Stanwyck’s, and she does the best she can with her role. Meanwhile, Edward Arnold is quietly menacing as the film’s Big Baddie (he’s eerily effective, especially in earlier scenes), and Walter Brennan, while typecast in a tiny supporting role, adds some much needed cynicism to the proceedings . Unfortunately, Cooper himself merely comes across as an uninteresting “bore”, someone without much charisma at all; I guess that’s part of the point (he’s supposed to be the ultimate “every man”, after all), but he makes for an awfully dull protagonist.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell
  • Edward Arnold as D.B. Norton

Must See?
Yes — but only as a one-time must-see, for its historical notoriety as prime “Capra-Corn”.

Categories

Links:

Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

“When you become a rebel, you give up a lot of things that make a feminine life easier.”

Synopsis:
A journalist (Errol Flynn) in Cuba during Castro’s revolution narrates the story of two “rebel girls” — including a naive American (Beverly Aadland) searching for her boyfriend (John McKay).

Genres:

Review:
Errol Flynn’s final film before his premature death from alcoholism at the age of 50 was this true historical oddity: a pseudo-documentary about Castro’s revolution in Cuba, centering its “narrative” (I use that word loosely) on the travails of a naive American beautician (Flynn’s own under-aged paramour at the time, Beverly Aadland) who heads to Cuba to locate her rebel boyfriend and quickly finds herself a sympathizer in the cause. “I guess there’s more to this war stuff than I thought”, she notes — with typically brilliant insight — at one point. Unfortunately, Cuban Rebel Girls is really, really bad — but never in an amusing way. At just an hour’s length, it feels far too long, and viewers will be hard pressed to pay attention past the first 15 minutes or so. Poor Aadland can’t act to save her life, and Flynn (playing a variation on his later self — apparently he owned property in Cuba and was a genuine supporter of the revolution) only appears on-screen during the film’s bookends, looking and sounding somewhat disoriented.

A bit of trivia: While making Cuban Rebel Girls, Flynn simultaneously cobbled together a shoddy documentary called Cuban Story, which I have no intention of checking out, though it was apparently released on DVD recently, for those with insatiable curiosity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An all-too-brief brief snippet of a most interesting folk tune, played about 35 minutes into the film for just a few seconds (I’m really stretching here)

Must See?
No, though I suppose it’s worth a cursory glance (two minutes or so will do) simply for its status as an historical oddity. Listed as a Cult Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Why Worry? (1923)

Why Worry? (1923)

“You boys will have to stop this fighting — it’s bad for my heart.”

Synopsis:
A wealthy hypochondriac (Harold Lloyd) and his nurse (Jobyna Ralston) arrive on a supposedly peaceful South American island which has just been taken over by revolutionaries. When Lloyd befriends an imprisoned giant (John Aasen) by helping him get rid of an aching tooth, he acquires an instant bodyguard and loyal servant.

Genres:

Review:
Peary lists no less then nine films by bespectacled comedian Harold Lloyd in his Guide for the Film Fanatic, including the two generally acknowledged as his best: Safety Last! (1923) and The Freshman (1925). Unfortunately, while Why Worry? is technically solid (Lloyd, as always, did his own stuntwork here), the silly storyline is repetitive and ultimately one-note in its lack of character arc or narrative complexity — indeed, the scenario seems much better suited for a comedic short than a full-length film. Not must-see unless you’re a diehard fan of Lloyd or of slapstick comedy in general.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few clever situational moments

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978)

Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978)

“I’ve been waiting all my life to fuck up like this.”

Synopsis:
A cynical Vietnam vet (Michael Moriarty) convinces his buddy (Nick Nolte) to smuggle heroin back to his wife (Tuesday Weld) in the United States — but two hitmen (Ray Sharkey and Richard Masur) working for a crooked cop (Anthony Zerbe) are soon on their tail, forcing Nolte and Weld to flee.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that while Karel Reisz’s adaptation of Robert Stone’s 1974 novel Dog Soldiers may “not [be] as sordid in its depiction of Vietnam-U.S. drug trafficking”, it “still packs a wallop” in its portrayal of a “fascinating true-to-life storyline that other directors wouldn’t touch because there is no ‘hero’ fighting for what we’d think is a worthy cause.” He notes that while it’s “not for the squeamish”, given that the “characters are extremely brutal” and the “action scenes are frightening”, it nonetheless possesses many strengths, given that the “characters are memorable, casting is perfect, dialogue is sharp, and direction of actors strong”. The final shoot-out in the hills of New Mexico (reminiscent of a western) is particularly exciting, and makes creative use of sound and music. (As Peary notes, the “picture has an excellent, eclectic score”.)

While it’s essentially a crime thriller, Who’ll Stop the Rain? is heavily driven by a core set of noteworthy performances. Nolte, “looking fit, is an action hero to rival Rambo”, and is eminently believable in his role — though one can’t help wishing a bit more of his personality was revealed or explained; at one point he’s referred to as a psychopath, but, despite his propensity towards violence, this clearly isn’t an accurate assessment. Meanwhile, Moriarty (who Peary notes it’s nice to see “in a non-neurotic role”) perfectly captures the quiet, jaded cynicism of a man who has seen far too much violence and “lunacy” during the war to remain idealistic; and Weld’s portrayal as his wife — a seemingly milquetoast bookstore employee and mother who becomes addicted to heroin during her nightmarish ordeal — is both brave and memorable (though again, one wishes the screenplay provided a bit more insight into who she is and what makes her tick). Another minor quibble: while Masur and Sharkey are appropriately menacing as the two thugs chasing after Nolte and Weld, they somehow come across a bit cartoonish at times; however, this is easy enough to overlook, as the story continues to propel us towards its bleak, violence-ridden finale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nick Nolte as Ray
  • Tuesday Weld as Marge
  • Michael Moriarty as John
  • The exciting final shoot-out

Must See?
Yes, for the fine performances throughout.

Categories

Links:

Cafe Express (1980)

Cafe Express (1980)

“Coffee is the best friend a man ever had.”

Synopsis:
A one-armed coffee vendor (Nino Manfredi) with a sick teenage son (Giovanni Piscopo) attempts to elude a trio of policemen while illicitly selling coffee on a train.

Genres:

Review:
Essentially an extended cat-and-mouse tale, Nanni Loy’s surprisingly touching and entertaining comedy takes place primarily within the confines of a moving train. The storyline is simple — and pretty much covered in the brief synopsis provided above — but remains compelling viewing throughout given our growing investment in the lead protagonist’s fate. Indeed, Nino Manfredi anchors the film, and provides it with its essential heart: he’s wily yet sympathetic, never afraid to call things as they are, and ultimately emerges as an unexpected folk hero of sorts. A minor quibble: one can’t help wondering why the railroad company isn’t allowing Manfredi to sell his coffee legitimately, given that it’s clearly desired by the passengers — but one must simply chalk this up to cultural idiosyncrasies. Not required viewing, but definitely worth seeking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nino Manfredi as Michele Abbagnano
  • A clever, surprisingly hard-hitting comedic screenplay

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended.

Links: